Assumption: the fast track to irrelevance

Are you assuming too much about what your clients value about you?

Branding | 3 minutes read | Gary Mcilwaine

Assumption: the fast track to irrelevance
Assumption: the fast track to irrelevance

Brand relevance is like fitness. You might have it now, but you have to work to maintain it. And there’s nothing quite like assumption to stall your progress. 


Relevance is always shifting. Brands need to keep moving in response to their audience to stay top of mind. 

Assuming what your audience value about you is a fast track to losing relevance.

And that loss can be dramatic.

Fast–forward to irrelevance

Remember Blockbuster Video? Chances are you were a regular visitor on Friday nights back in the early 2000s.

But search your local high street now and you’ll search in vain for a Blockbuster. The once ubiquitous chain is now completely absent.

So what happened?

Assumption happened. And the result is best illustrated by comparison with another US movie rental service: Netflix. 

Blockbuster opened the doors of its first store in 1985. Its corporate mission? “To provide our customers with the most convenient access to media entertainment.” In a market where most video stores had a limited selection of titles, Blockbuster stores stocked thousands.

By 2004, Blockbuster was dominating the movie rental market. With around 9,000 stores worldwide, the chain enjoyed a massive $6bn revenue. At the same time, Netflix was a struggling startup.

By 2010, the tables had turned. Blockbuster was bankrupt. And Netflix? The struggling startup was now a $2.2bn company. 

Today, Blockbuster is a footnote in history and Netflix is a behemoth worth more than $28bn. Four times as big as Blockbuster ever was. And still growing.

Assumptions determine direction of travel

The irony is, Blockbuster had the opportunity to buy Netflix. The fledgling company approached Blockbuster in 2000 in the hope of forging a partnership. Blockbuster waved the opportunity away. They had lost sight of their founding mission.

At that time, Netflix was pioneering streaming services and investing accordingly.They had recognised that the movie rental market was changing. 

Blockbuster had been warned. The streaming revolution was on its way. But instead of holding to its corporate mission and taking the business in that direction, Blockbuster decided to double down on stock and inventory.

The movie rental business was travelling in one direction. Blockbuster decided to travel in the opposite direction.

Blockbuster’s direction of travel was determined by its assumptions.

They assumed what their customers valued about them. And they were wrong.

Assumption 1: Blockbuster assumed that their customers valued their wide selection of DVDs. But customers valued something deeper and more fundamental – choice.

Assumption 2: Blockbuster assumed that their customers valued their well placed locations. But customers valued convenience. And movie rental from home is hard to beat.

Assumption 3: Blockbuster assumed that its customers valued their great offers. What customers really appreciated was good value. 

Remember Blockbuster’s corporate mission, “To provide our customers with the most convenient access to media entertainment”? If Blockbuster had stayed true to this, it could’ve maintained its relevance. As it happened, the company appeared more concerned with maximising shareholder profits.

Want to stay relevant? Just ask

Blockbuster’s woes provide a lesson in how you can use your organisation’s original vision to rediscover your relevance for today. Mining an organisation’s heritage often provides fertile ground for taking the brand in a fresh direction. 

But this mining needs to be paired with research into what your customers actually value about you. Out with the old assumptions. In with accurate perceptions. 

And thankfully this is now easier than ever. 

You can identify what your customers value and then use these insights to inform your rebrand. That way, your brand position won’t be based on assumption but on accurate and up to date information.

Our processes are specifically designed to highlight differences between what employees think about the brand and what customers think about it.

The differences are often illuminating.

For example, we worked with a property developer who felt that the family connections in the business were perceived as a problem.

Our research revealed something entirely different.

Customers actually perceived the family connection as a strength. It gave the impression that they were a safe pair of hands.

So make sure that any review you conduct is similarly designed to bring out differences in perception.

With the insights you gather from this, you’ll have the makings of a solid foundation for your brand. Relevance will be baked into it.

But the work doesn’t stop there. Customer opinions can change rapidly, so you need to build in regular testing of your assumptions. What your customers valued about you last year may not be the same things that they value about you now.

And no company is immune to shifts in the marketplace. Netflix will need to respond thoughtfully to changes posed by the launch of the new streaming platform Disney+. Disney’s content beats both Netflix and Amazon in consumer perceptions of quality, according to Ampere Analysis. Losing a significant amount of popular content from Netflix could leave the platform exposed. The service will need to work hard to remain popular with its changing audience.

Like fitness, relevance can’t be stored up. It needs to be maintained. And that comes from getting the views of your customers on a regular basis. It could be that your original vision is still as relevant as ever.

So you want to stay relevant?

Ask. Don’t assume.

Our use of cookies

This site relies on cookies to work. We'd also like to set optional analytics cookies to help us improve it.

You can read more in our Cookie Notice


We use cookies to protect our site and users, and to enable necessary functionality.

Analytics cookies

We would like to set Google Analytics cookies to help us to improve our website by collecting and reporting information on how you use it.